Leah Ward Sears was a panelist at the 27th Annual Georgia Bar Media Conference on Friday. Leah Ward Sears was a panelist at the 27th Annual Georgia Bar Media Conference on Friday. (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

The Georgia Supreme Court took criticism for its lack of diversity, even with its expansion last year from seven to nine justices, during a discussion at the annual bar media conference Friday.

Former Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, now a partner with Smith, Gambrell & Russell, took issue with the look-alike nature of Gov. Nathan Deal’s appointments to the state’s highest court while speaking on a panel addressing the judicial system at the State Bar of Georgia. Of the three new justices Deal placed on the court a year ago—one replacement and two expansions—all are white. Two of the three are men.

“That’s not something to be celebrated,” Sears said. “That’s not a good thing.”

Sears said her diversity concerns extend to the judiciary in general. In the state’s courts, Sears said, “70 to 80 percent of the judges are white men. White men are not 70 to 80 percent of the people in Georgia.” She added that, when judges do not look like the people who come before them, “that does not establish trust.”

Former Daily Report editor and now Poston Communications VP Ed Bean moderated the panel. Bean pointed out that the high court will lose one of its two women at the end of the year when Justice Carol Hunstein is scheduled to retire.

Another panelist, attorney and former Congressman George “Buddy” Darden, took issue with the addition of the two new justices.

“There is quite a bit of skepticism among the bar about the expansion of the court,” Darden said.

In addition, the former congressman took critical note of the so-called jurisdictional shift that moved divorce, real estate and some other cases from the Supreme Court to the Georgia Court of Appeals last year.

Justice Harold Melton was a panelist at the 27th Annual Georgia Bar Media Conference on Friday February 23, 2018. Photo by John Disney/ ALM

Darden directed his comments to fellow panelist Presiding Justice Harold Melton, who is expected to be voted chief justice next year. Melton had just pointed out that two separate studies have determined that the Georgia Supreme Court is one of the most productive in the country in terms of number of opinions written, amount of time spent in oral arguments and speed of action.

“Not only have you gone from seven to nine justices, but you’ve given away a lot of the troublesome cases to the Court of Appeals, which is also said to be one of the busiest courts,” Darden said. “Pardon the expression, but the jury is out on the nine-member court.”

Melton reacted with characteristic grace.

“I respect that, congressman,” Melton said. “We’ll try to earn your trust going forth.”

Melton said moving from seven to nine justices didn’t speed up the process of decision-making, but it did lead to a more thorough analysis.

“Our opinions are extremely well thought out. They’re very thorough in the analysis, so the product is very consistent,” Melton said. Even with more justices, he estimated they agree unanimously in 98 percent of cases.

Darden did concede that he believes the quality of recent judicial choices has been high.

“We served in Congress together as Democrats,” Darden said of Deal, who like many Georgia politicians is now a Republican. “Governor Deal has made generally excellent appointments. Maybe not the appointments you or I would make, but he earned the right to make those appointments by being elected governor.

“He’s a lawyer, and he likes lawyers,” Darden said. “In all candor, I think this will be one of the strongest parts of his legacy.”

The bar wrapped up the conference by hearing from both Republicans and Democrats competing to succeed Deal in the November 2018 election. The candidates included: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both lawyers and former state representatives running as Democrats, plus Republicans Hunter Hill and Brian Kemp.